For many people, the coronavirus crisis and the changes it has brought are triggering both old and new feelings of fear and anxiety. Whether you have long been acquainted with the feeling of overwhelming, all-consuming fear or are being confronted with it for the first time, let’s take a closer look at what fear actually is, why we need it, and which strategies you can use when fear gets out of control.
What is fear?
According to US psychologist Paul Ekman, fear is one of seven universal emotions – meaning it’s a significant component of human existence and is found in all cultures around the world. The other six universal emotions according to Ekman are anger, disgust, sadness, contempt, enjoyment and surprise.
Simply, this means that we all experience these feelings. The way we express them may differ between cultures, but there is likely nobody on earth who has never experienced these emotions.
Therefore it’s quite normal to feel afraid. Like the other universal emotions, fear has a fundamentally useful function. It warns us to be cautious in dangerous situations, or indicates when we have reached our limits and need to ask for help. So it’s not a question of getting rid of fear, but rather allowing ourselves to experience it in certain situations and to the right extent, and to take it seriously.
Fear only becomes problematic when it takes over in inappropriate situations, or when we aren’t fearful enough and our healthy warning system isn’t functioning. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, too much fear means you can’t leave the house because you’re afraid of being infected, or you don’t want to go shopping because wearing a mask or seeing others wearing one frightens you. Too little fear, on the other hand, can lead to you putting yourself at risk unnecessarily, for example by gathering in large groups. Then you are in danger of infecting yourself and others.
Not everyone is afraid of the same thing
The interesting thing about fear is that while it is an emotion universal to all humans (meaning it’s physically expressed in a similar way), it can be provoked by a huge variety of ideas and situations which differ from person to person.
Put simply, not everybody is afraid of the same thing. While one person might feel anxious in an elevator, another may not be worried at all. Other people can’t deal with a spider in the room or are afraid to be alone in the dark.
For some people, wearing a protective face mask is not a big deal – unpleasant but not terrible. They simply accept the situation for what it is. But others feel afraid because it’s more difficult to breathe – for some it can even spark a panic attack. Others still feel anxious because they can’t read facial expressions properly and so lose an important way of evaluating how dangerous a situation is.
The reasons for fear are many and varied. How can this thought be helpful?
It is never the situation itself which triggers fear. It is always – yes, always – your own interpretation of the situation.
And that’s why it is possible to work towards no longer feeling so anxious in certain situations..
In psychology we differentiate between two sorts of strategy for managing fear and anxiety: short-term and long-term strategies.
Short-term strategies help you to extricate yourself from spiralling thoughts in an acutely anxious situation. A short-term strategy could be to seek help getting out of a circle of negative thoughts.
In a case of acute anxiety another option is avoiding the situation that triggers it completely – ordering food instead of going shopping, not entering the room with the spider in it. Another short-term option is distraction – go for a walk, listen to music, get lost in another activity to keep your mind busy.
But clearly, these solutions only work temporarily. At some point you’ll have to go shopping, you’ll want to enter the room again, and you can’t stay on the telephone to distract yourself forever.
Without effective long-term strategies fear always comes back. In many cases the short-term strategies even cultivate it, because instead of tackling the cause, they suggest to you that your fear is justified and the situation you are afraid of really is very bad.
Long-term strategies for managing anxiety
Long-term strategies tackle the root causes and help us to live with our anxiety and sometimes to reduce it.
1. Shift your focus from internal to external
When we are afraid we often turn our focus inwards, to our thoughts, the catastrophic scenarios our minds dream up and our panicky physical reactions like a racing heart, sweating, shivering and so on.
When you concentrate on your fear in this way, you get caught in a maelstrom which draws you away from the actual situation as it really is. It’s important to shift your focus back to the reality around you, so that you are aware that something other than your fear is real.
This takes some practice, since it’s not easy at the beginning. You could set yourself a small daily task:
Sit or stand at the window for five minutes, look out and describe what you see in as much detail as possible. In this way you’ll train yourself to shift your focus outwards. Set a timer, and don’t be too harsh on yourself if you get distracted quickly and often – that’s normal. Gradually you can increase the length of time or choose another location, for example walking through the woods or a park and taking note of everything around you.
This exercise trains you to be in the here and now. In a situation which makes you anxious, it will then be easier for you to stop spiralling thoughts by taking note of your surroundings.
2. Change your interpretation of the situation
Let’s remind ourselves: it is never the situation, but rather the interpretation which triggers a feeling – in this case fear.
The good news is, it is entirely possible to change your interpretation of a situation by allowing your subconscious the option of choosing a different one.
When it comes to a frightening situation, you can do this in two steps:
The first step is writing down all the negative, frightening thoughts you can think of. To take the example of wearing a protective face mask, this might include the fear of not getting enough air to breathe, the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to recognize other people’s expressions and thus misjudging how dangerous a situation is, the discomfort at this being imposed on you rather than your own choice. Perhaps also the general feeling of threat when you are surrounded by masked people. You are recognizing all these interpretive possibilities by writing them down.
The second step is to think about new interpretations, and to write down how you might experience the situation differently – or if that’s too difficult, how other people seem to experience it. Ask yourself how you would rather experience the situation, which interpretation would serve you better. You don’t have to become a fan of masks or suddenly think spiders are the cutest animal in existence. It’s enough to note down thoughts of acceptance like “It is how it is”, “It’s only for a short time”, “I can leave the room at any time”. Or you can think about proven facts – for example when wearing a mask, “I am protecting other people” or “We are showing solidarity and consideration.”
By giving your mind new options, you can perceive the situation as more pleasant or at least less unpleasant in the future.
3. Give yourself encouragement
If you find yourself in a situation that normally makes you anxious, imagine a friendly companion with you. Give them the task of supporting you and encouraging you. This can include talking kindly to yourself and giving yourself encouragement to do something – for example “I can do this”, “You’ve got through difficult situations before”, “You have nothing to lose” – and already the anxiety will begin to subside, without you needing help from other people.
4. Use breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation
Anxiety often makes us very tense and makes us hold our bodies stiffly. This can make the anxiety even worse, because it signals to our brains that we are on high alert and probably in danger.
A useful tool for breaking out of this vicious cycle is progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. With PMR you can work specifically to counter the cycle and ease tension. If for example you do it for ten minutes three times a week, it will have a long-term effect. There are great practice videos online which teach you how to relax your body when you are tense and anxious.
Breathing exercises function in a similar way, bringing your body back into a relaxed state and teaching it to do that intuitively in stressful situations.
That gives your brain the signal that the fear can subside.
5. Find peace through meditation
Meditation follows a similar path, but it also brings your thoughts into play and trains you to let them be just that – thoughts. Through meditation you learn that you don’t have to react to your thoughts, that is to say your interpretation of a situation. Having the thought does not mean that a reaction – like fear, or running away – has to follow. The thought can just pass by and be replaced by the next one.
This too is a question of practice, and gets easier with time. Don’t expect a miracle at the beginning. Meditation is something that must be learned.
A good first exercise is to try to meditate for five minutes. You can find a lot of great guided meditation videos online.
6. Practice acceptance
As this article has mentioned several times, a very effective way to deal with difficult emotions like anxiety is to accept them.
It may sound strange at first, but imagine a ball floating on water. If you try to hold it below the surface, pushing it down, it’s very difficult and won’t be possible in the long run. Once you let go, the ball is full of energy and shoots upwards. But if you simply let the fear be there, then it can float away on the surface of the water.
7. Face your fear in small steps
Finally, remember that what really helps is to keep facing your fears over and over.
Do it like in a computer game – don’t start with the final boss. Write yourself a hierarchy of anxiety. Which situation scares me the most? Which situation scares me less? What would be in the middle? And what about when I’m only a little bit anxious, but enough to make me swallow?
Now you have your “game levels” which you can use to practice. Make a plan for how you can progress. Nobody enjoys facing their fears, which is why it’s important to make a plan that you can follow consistently.
This gives you the chance to learn. If you always avoid situations that make you anxious then you never learn that you can do it. But with this plan you can start small and show yourself bit by bit that you can overcome the situation despite your anxiety. And don’t forget to celebrate every success and give yourself a big pat on the back!
If you are struggling with anxiety around the coronavirus, you can try our cost-free online psychological training course for stress management. We look forward to you joining us!